Translations of the Year 2017

To celebrate another year of German-language literature in English translation, British Library Translator in Residence – and literary translator from German – Jen Calleja recommends her Top 10 translations from German of the year.

tawada coverMemoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, tr. Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books)

I have to start with my favourite. The book charts the lives of three related polar bears during key periods in history; one is a writer forced to go into exile, one is a circus performer, and the last is the infamous Knut of Berlin Zoo. Tawada, a Japanese-born writer based in Germany who writes in German, Japanese and English, explores important socio-cultural and historical events through her unique sensibility and unsurpassable ingenuity in this surreal novel. The book has just won the very first Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, a brand new award to raise awareness about the discrepancy in the numbers of men and women making it into English translation, and both Tawada and her award-winning American translator Susan Bernofsky will share the £1000 prize money.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, tr. Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books)

Another Portobello publication – and once again translated by Susan Bernofsky – the latest Jenny Erpenbeck couldn’t be more long-awaited or relevant. Richard, a retired German academic, is intrigued by the homeless refugees he sees on the streets of Berlin, and sets out to get to know them and their plight after years of being shut off from the world with his books. Erpenbeck and Bernofsky won the Independent Foreign Fiction for Visitation.

Swallow Summer by Larissa Boehning, tr. Lyn Marven (Comma Press)

Life-long Berliner Larissa Boehning’s debut collection of short stories charts an array of different characters as their hopes and expectations are challenged or fail to materialise. Past connections, circumstance or chance reunites people who have changed – or who are unable to fully move on. The book was shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2017, and in their statement the judges said that it was ‘a vindication, if ever one were needed, of the short story form’.

Fritz coverThe Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz, tr. Adrian Nathan West (Verso)

Austrian author Fritz, whose epic Naturgemäß (‘Naturally’) was yet to be completed at the time of her death ten years ago, is regularly called a genius, and has received comparisons to authors like James Joyce (though she is beyond compare) for her vast, complex masterpieces. This slim novel is her first work to be translated into English (the larger pieces have been deemed a headache for publishers and translators alike) and places us with the very troubled Berta, who is finding motherhood and loneliness an ordeal after the war. Adrian Nathan West’s translation from Verso comes in a lurid pink cover complete with disorientating, distorted lettering, which creates a chilling contrast to the claustrophobic and strange horror within.

Hilbig coverOld Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, tr. Isabel Fargo Cole (Two Lines Press)

This might be my favourite title for a book ever. Hilbig – who also died a decade ago – has found a very welcome reception in the Anglophone world. This latest book to be translated into English explores the jarring and traumatic disconnect between childhood memories and experiences of a place and the way ‘truth’ may be revealed in adulthood. Hilbig’s virtuosic prose is ‘rendered’ into English once again by Berlin-based American translator and writer Isabel Fargo Cole, who has recently had her own debut novel published – of special note is that she herself writes in German.

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, tr. Katy Derbyshire (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

This mammoth book takes the sex trade in a big city from prohibition in the GDR to legal status after the fall of the wall, and is an intense reading experience that A L Kennedy compares to ‘diving into a force 10 gale’. Translated by Katy Derbyshire, this is Meyer's latest book in translation since All The Lights, which came out with And Other Stories in 2011 and was also translated by Derbyshire. Meyer made a real impression on the audience when he appeared at European Literature Night this summer – he is pretty straight talking and speaks his mind. It was long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize this year, and is currently long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award.

Insane by Rainald Goetz, tr. Adrian Nathan West (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The latest German translation from Fitzcarraldo Editions is Goetz’s debut Insane, originally published thirty years ago, and also translated by Adrian Nathan West. Based on Goetz’s actual experience of clinical psychiatric institutions and with the intention of painting ‘a portrait of the asylum as a total institution’, the book is mostly told in short, stream-of-consciousness vignettes. Intriguing facts from Goetz’s past are that he cut his own forehead open with a razorblade while giving a reading at the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in the 80s (though I haven’t watched the video) and he was part of the Munich punk scene.

Seethaler coverThe Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler, tr. Charlotte Collins (Pan Macmillan)

Seventeen-year-old Franz leaves his idyllic home in rural Austria for city life in Vienna to apprentice for Otto, a tobacconist at the heart of everything going on in the city. His shop is frequented by a certain Dr. Freud, who soon befriends Franz, but their lives and friendship will be changed forever during the events of 1937: the annexation of Austria by Hitler. A celebrated second book by the same author-translator team behind the Man Booker International Prize-shortlisted A Whole Life. It’s currently long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award.

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift, tr. by Jamie Bulloch (Peirene Press)

Part of the Peirene ‘Fairy Tale’ series, this is a book that seems light on the outside, but it actually incredibly dark. Behind the story of a new friendship with a mysterious old lady is a descent into addiction and madness and a life of crime: it’s very much leaning toward the ‘tragi’ over the ‘comic’. Jamie Bulloch translated Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, also published by Peirene, which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (plus won him the Schlegel-Tieck Prize).

River by Esther Kinsky, tr. Iain Galbraith (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

This book doesn’t technically count as it’s out in January, so it’s more of a heads up… I read this book last year in the original German and found it engrossing and stunningly written. There was also an added layer to my reading experience as much of it is set in and around Hackney, where I was living at the time. The book comes out in January, and then you’ll be able to judge for yourself.

Jen Calleja is the inaugural Translator in Residence at the British Library, and her most recent translation is 'The Pixels of Paul Cézanne' by Wim Wenders (Faber & Faber). She is currently translating Michelle Steinbeck’s 'My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water' (Darf Publishing). She will be in conversation with the author Kerstin Hensel about her translation of Hensel’s 'Dance by the Canal' (Peirene Press) on 22 February at Senate House Library.